Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Graduate Advising in the Time of Covid-19

Full branimir balogovic  on unsplash

Photo by Branimir Balogovic on Unsplash

Graduate school was hard enough before the plague. Ph.D. students already live with more uncertainty than most of the academic population. They engage in a course of study of long but indeterminate length. Many don’t finish. And their career prospects were decidedly unclear even before Covid-19 upended their already-unsettled world.

People with jobs — across academe and in every labor sector — are nervously wondering what those jobs will look like in weeks or months. It’s bound to feel even more disquieting for those who are still uncertified, still in training.

Many graduate students in the sciences continue to work at their labs, but in decidedly altered and anxious circumstances. Those in other fields have had to scatter, in many cases forbidden to congregate at their workplaces or meet with their own teachers.

How do we best advise our Ph.D. students in these times? Academics have lately been sprinting up a steep learning curve as we move to remote instruction to teach undergraduate courses. Obviously that should remain a priority, but let’s not forget about our graduate students.

In the midst of our undergraduate triage, it might be tempting to leave doctoral students to fend for themselves. They do a lot of their work independently anyway, and they may not need our help in handling their remote teaching since some of them have more experience with it than their faculty advisers do. But leaving them alone would be a mistake.

It might seem impossible to give advice to graduate students when we barely know ourselves what the coming months will bring. How can we know what they need?

Here’s a suggestion: Ask them. Then, after an appropriate time, ask them again. Because this situation is moving so fast, you might have to ask fairly often. (You might also ask your former students. I’ve gotten a lot of good counsel that way over the years.)

When I asked my current Ph.D. students an open question on how I could best advise them at this strange moment, they mostly talked about working plans and deadlines. Their answers showed me that they wanted structure. That’s understandable, considering that the quotidian rhythm of their lives has fallen apart.

I don’t normally focus on deadlines when I advise Ph.D. students. I figure that they’re mature enough to manage their own workloads, and I believe that they should draw their motivation from inside themselves, not from me. But these aren’t normal times — so I’ll need to behave differently. I need to supply some of the structure that they’re missing, so I’m taking a more active role in their calendars.

Graduate students also need contact and conversation to make that structure real — and to give them some variety. One of my recently graduated Ph.D. students, Caroline Hagood, stressed "connection, connection, connection." She suggested more frequent emails "to check in." That’s advice I plan to take.

These months of quarantine and isolation remind me of another time I was voluntarily isolated, on a salmon-processing boat in Alaska one summer. The same group of people, mostly college students and ex-convicts, remained anchored in Bristol Bay for two months, gutting and freezing fish. Years before the internet, we had what few books there were on board, and we had one another’s company. With scant input from the outside world, we soon exhausted our supply of conversations, and they started repeating themselves. I needed the money I was making, but some days I wanted to throw myself out the porthole.

Many graduate students are dealing with their own stir-craziness — that’s one of the few assumptions we can safely make these days.

With structure can come social opportunity that might help ease the cabin fever a bit. My department is planning to bring in some outside speakers for virtual presentations. Advisers also need to look for ways to substitute for the shared experience of graduate-student community. Caroline, my former doctoral student, suggested occasional Zoom meetings with adviser and advisees to remind them that "they are still part of a community."

Students who may be graduating this year may feel the loss of community acutely. Like the undergraduate seniors who will miss their commencements, graduate students will find it very hard to celebrate a Ph.D. when there’s no one physically present even to shake their hand.

I expect that most universities will offer some deferred form of recognition when the public-health emergency subsides, but that will prove thin gruel for graduates who may have physically moved on. I hope that advisers will think creatively — and in partnership with graduating students — to try to formulate some kind of closure ritual.

Whatever the solution, it needs to be rooted in community. I just got off the phone with another of my former Ph.D. students, James M. Van Wyck, now an assistant dean at Princeton University. He and Will Fenton — another Ph.D. student of mine who is director of scholarly innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia — have volunteered to coordinate with current and former doctoral students to virtually attend the public dissertation defenses our department will hold in the coming months.

It’s precisely those kinds of multi-institutional partnerships that this moment calls for. Does your graduate school have a great webinar on preparing for Skype interviews? Share it broadly. Have other ideas for sustaining virtual community among doctoral students? Share them on Twitter, in the comments below, and wherever you see colleagues looking to support graduate students.

Graduate students seeking jobs are facing some new and undefined obstacles, to say the least. They can’t get a teaching job when hiring freezes mean there are none to apply for, but they can prepare — and advisers can help.

But our students needed that kind of help already. We have to raise our standard in this area for two obvious reasons. First, today’s problems on the faculty job market — which we hope are temporary — are clearly enormous. And second, we weren’t doing well enough in the first place to help our Ph.D.s prepare for academic and nonacademic career paths.

Many of the challenges that this year’s Ph.D.s face are just heightened versions of the ones our graduate students have faced all along.

Doctoral students in the arts and sciences had to learn to navigate multiple and uncertain paths before the novel coronavirus hit. Their advisers have had to honor the complexity and variability of their task even as we’ve tried to prepare them for it. Many of us were doing a better job at that before the virus arrived, but we weren’t doing well enough. The havoc caused by this virus shouldn’t distract us from that fact.

The temptation to leave graduate students to their own devices is hardly new. I experienced it as a student myself, in the 1980s. It didn’t work very well then, it didn’t work last year, and it absolutely doesn’t work right now. We need to keep track of our responsibility to our graduate students in both strange times and normal ones.

It turns out that the problems of Ph.D. students haven’t changed much because of Covid-19. The virus merely throws them into higher relief. Doctoral students need more comprehensive attention in this uncertain moment than we usually give them — but then, they needed that for a long time before the pandemic, too.

Lots of things are going to change in academe in the coming weeks and months. Taking more responsibility for the professional lives and futures of our Ph.D. students should be one of them.


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